For those who are chomping at the bit to acquire tickets for the Red Hot Chili Peppers 2022 stadium tour with The Strokes, there might be another name on the marquee that isn’t as familiar. For someone who just listens to the alt rock radio that the Chili Peppers colonised over the past 30 years, a modern name like Thundercat’s can be puzzling. Is this a band? Is this a person? Is this an ’80s TV show?
Stephen Lee Bruner, AKA Thundercat, is a musical artist with a diverse array of features. Originally earning his bones as a member of legendary thrash-punkers Suicidal Tendencies, Bruner has subsequently gone on to be featured on tracks by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, Silk Sonic, and Haim, just to name a few. As a bass player extraordinaire, it should come as no surprise that he’s attracted the attention of someone like Flea. In fact, Bruner has even played with the Chili Peppers, performing their song ‘Go Robot’ with them at the album release party for The Getaway.
He’s a modern musical marvel, fusing rock, funk, jazz, rap, and everything under the sun in his solo work. Using some of his signature custom bass guitars, Bruner is able to channel all of his influences, whether they be bassist, guitarist, pianist, trumpeters, or rappers, in his unique playing abilities. Part of the reason why he’s so adaptable as a session musician and composer in because Bruner’s background and tastes are so diverse.
That’s probably best illustrated by his appearance with Pitchfork for the website’s ‘Under the Influence’ series. Bruner plays it coy, saying he didn’t want to pick up the bass for the interview, but eventually he feels compelled to play along to some of his favourite bass lines. The songs that he chooses work as a great guide for any aspiring bassist who might want to follow in Bruner’s footsteps. His choices are classics, and they each contain valuable lessons about why the bass is so essential to all different genres of music.
Thundercat’s favourite bass lines:
Raphael Saadiq – ‘Lady’
When talking about D’Angelo’s track ‘Lady’ from his classic 1995 debut Brown Sugar, Bruner highlights the work of bassist and producer Rapahel Saadiq. Saadiq was one of the architects of the Neo soul sound that D’Angelo pioneered, having lent his production and songwriting talents to the likes of Eykah Badu, John Legend, and Mary J. Blige. When Brunner was attempting to play ‘Lady’, Saadiq showed him the simplicity of just three notes rooted in the feel of the song.
“It took me a long time to really wrap mind around the part where this guy is only playing three notes, but this song grooves so hard,” Thundercat said. “And if your feel sucks, you just suck [laughs]… I think that’s a hard line for a lot of musicians because you just figure ‘it shouldn’t matter’. But the truth is feel is one of the more important aspects of being a musician. If it don’t feel right, you’re getting fired. It’s the truth.”
Marcus Miller – ‘Haboglabotribin’
Bruner grew up being exposed to all different kids of music, but jazz provided a special education that most genres didn’t. Through the ever-evolving styles of musicians like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, Bruner was able to see how the blurred lines between traditional genres could open up new possibilities within playing. Like a lot of devotees, Bruner poured over the liner notes, where he came across a repeated name: Marcus Miller.
“Marcus Miller, man. Legend. Slappin the bass: it can be a treacherous area for a bass player. It can literally be considered mutiny or treachery when you’re slapping the bass.” Miller was able to excel in both funk and jazz, bringing slap bass into traditional jazz songs and complex harmonic changes into more bare-bones funk songs. Bruner cites Miller’s playing in Bernard White’s ‘Haboglabotribin’ and its subsequent sample in Snoop Dogg’s ‘Gz and Hustlas’. “That bass line, I feel like it’s a staple, because it kinda transcended time”.
Louis Johnson – ‘Strawberry Letter 23’
Almost as a way to shed light on why he’s become such a versatile utility player, many of Bruner’s favourite players weren’t stars on their own. Instead, he keys into the figures who were able to add their signature sound to improve the records and songs of others. The Brothers Johnson were a legendary duo of George Johnson on guitar and Louis Johnson on bass, and when the brothers didn’t work sessions, they found success for themselves, scoring a top five US hit with ‘Strawberry Letter 23’.
“A lot of my favourite records have Louis Johnson on them, like the Michael Jackson stuff. The Brothers Johnson were a legendary group of course. I feel like the bass line was definitely one of the reasons why it was a hit record,” Bruner enthuses. “There’s a way that Louis is playing this bass line where he’s sliding into these notes in a certain way, and it’s what’s giving it this slinky feeling to it”.
Jack Bruce – ‘Sunshine of Your Love’
Bruner’s influences extend beyond the realms of R&B, funk, and jazz. He also had a strong education in hard rock, metal, and punk, styles not necessarily renowned for their technically complex bass lines. And yet, Bruner is able to tap into the dexterity of John Paul Jones, the galloping speed of Steve Harris, and the aggressive drive of Dee Dee Ramone without ever seeming at odds with a song’s groove. One of the classic bass players he uses as a blueprint for that fusion is Cream’s Jack Bruce.
“I’m choosing these bass lines because of the simplicity of them, that’s also becoming the driving force behind the song. It’s funny, even today in music when you listen to things like trap and things like that, the bass is still driving the song,” Bruner explains. “This is one of those driving bass lines that you can’t get away from.”
Larry Graham – ‘Hair’
Despite describing the hesitations some musicians have with slap bass, it’s clear that Bruner loves the art form. He employs it generously throughout his own catalogue, and he doesn’t shy away from highlighting the masters of the form. For one of his picks, he highlights former Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham’s work on his solo cut ‘Hair’ as some of the originator’s best work.
“Everybody knows at this point that Larry Graham invented slap bass. This is like a known fact. This is also Drake’s uncle, for those who don’t know.I was always a Drake fan but then when I found that out I was like ‘It don’t matter. Drake was meant to do this,'” Bruner extolls. “The part where he singing and slapping this on bass is a miracle. ‘What the entire hell is going on?'”.
Jaco Pastorius – ‘Portrait of Tracy’
Despite featuring rhythm, feel, and simplicity as his major tenets for bass, Bruner uses his final pick to highlight the eccentricities and expanded possibilities of bass. When it comes to eccentricity, nobody was more creative than Jaco Pastorius. A jazz prodigy who later contributed to the 1970s work of Joni Mitchell, Pastorius was able to use harmonics and glissandos go beyond what most would consider to be the bass’ role within a song. No example better personifies this than his solo cut, ‘Portrait of Tracy’.
“This song, he’s doing everything at one time: he’s doing melody, harmony, rhythm. Before this, people probably messed around with ‘Oh, this bass these makes weird noises,’ but Jaco knew the role of everything like that and welded it so easily,” Bruner says. “He’s doing everything from false harmonics to actual harmonics all along the bass”.